Teacher-student relationships among primary teachers: Manifestations of empathy

Year: 2017

Author: Swan, Paul

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The aim of this study was to explore how six Australian primary teachers who were identified by their school principals as effective empathisers, draw on that quality to create supportive learning environments with their students. Empathic interactions are fundamental to good teaching. Empathy in educators is important to create positive learning environments, unconditional positive regard (caring), and support. Effective teacher empathy involves recognizing a student's mental state (intentions, beliefs, desires, and emotions) and responding with an appropriate emotion based on care (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004).

Participants completed a Teacher Style Survey (Watt & Richardson, 2007) tapping relatedness, expectations, structure, negativity; and relational goals (Butler, 2012); and identified "empathy moments" in video observations of their classroom practice. Teacher reports of their relational goals and teaching style dimensions, together with student-rated parallel teaching style dimensions, complemented the filmed classroom practice at two timepoints. The aims were to develop a multidimensional operational definition to guide observations of teachers' interactions with students, and to examine demonstrated teacher empathy practice. Participants self-identified positive "empathy interaction moments" from the footage for analysis. These filmed vignettes and four "live" lessons were coded for levels of emotional support using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (Pianta, Hamre, & Mintz, 2012). Teachers' perspectives of their actions in the filmed vignettes were further explored at interview, and thematically analysed using an interpretative phenomenological approach. Phenomenological case studies collectively explored manifestations of teacher empathy in these classrooms.

High correlations were identified between CLASS emotional support dimensions, lesson observations and vignettes, and there was strong alignment between teachers' and students' perceptions of the teaching style dimensions. Results demonstrate these nominated empathic teachers were highly motivated to connect with students, took a personal interest in them beyond the curriculum demands, were 'in synch' with student perceptions, displayed high levels of support, and regulated their teaching style to meet student needs. A practical development grounded in this data was the development of an empathy assessment instrument based on the phenomenology of empathy and extant literature which may be useful as a platform to enhance teachers' empathic engagement among primary school teachers. This instrument is proposed to be trialled and refined with a larger cohort of teachers in a range of teaching contexts.